On 19 October, a virtual #CroakeyGO will provide a platform for hearing from people with lived experience of gambling harms, whether experienced directly or via family members and friends.
The article below, by Croakey’s Melissa Sweet, sets the scene for the event, including some clear messages for those working in the health sector. Follow the conversations on Twitter at #GamblingHarms and also this Twitter list.
Melissa Sweet writes:
Victorian woman Anna Bardsley remembers the night clearly. She’d been arguing with her husband and had to get out. Driving the streets, nothing was open except for a venue where she used to play the pokies socially with her friends.
The lights beckoned; she thought it would be a safe place for a woman at that late hour. As she began feeding the machines, Bardsley felt herself calming down.
“Looking back, I now know the machine did what it was designed to do, settle me down and zone me out,” she recalls.
“It was the beginning of the end; it wasn’t very long after that, that I was going whenever I had an opportunity, on my way home from work, when going to other appointments. I ended up there in the middle of the night, at 3am…”
Bardsley, who spent most of her career as a book-keeper, went on to lose ten years of her life to the poker machines.
“I tried to give up so many times because I hated what I was doing,” she says. “I hated the lies I was telling myself and everyone else. It’s not just money you lose; you never get that time back to do better things. My children will never get that time back; the ultimate cost for me was the shredding of every last vestige of my self-esteem.”
Bardsley says the language promoted by the industry, of “responsible gambling” and “problem gamblers”, only made her feel worse about her “shameful secret”.
“It made me the problem and I believed it, that other people could stop, why couldn’t I? That I must be a particular kind of loser, that I was deficient in everything.”
Writing for recovery
Bardsley’s recovery came through counselling and joining a writing group for recovering gamblers with author Arnold Zable. She began to write about her experiences, to listen to other peoples’ stories, and to understand that the machines were designed to promote addiction.
She says: “I realised I was entrapped by a dangerous addictive product put out there by an amoral and unethical industry and a government that had legislated to let these machines into almost every street corner. So I decided to come out.”
Bardsley’s story was published in a 2013 book, From Ruin to Recovery. Her contribution to the book broke the news to many of her family and friends about her addiction. It also marked the start of a transformation, not only in her personal life but also the beginning of her work to reform the industry.
Bardsley, 71, is a founding member of a theatre group, Three Sides of the Coin, which supports people to tell stories about their experiences of gambling. As well as assisting the storytellers’ own wellbeing, these gambling narratives are used as advocacy tools, and to provide professional development training across the health and social sectors.
She also joined the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation’s Lived Experience Advisory Committee, and is Victorian Coordinator of the Lived Experience Advocates, Champions for Change at the Alliance.
“It matters to me that people understand that gambling harm can happen to anybody,” she says. “I’m ‘anybody’. I’m just an ordinary person living a seemingly ordinary life.”
Bardsley is looking forward to discussing the importance of reform during a virtual #CroakeyGO on Monday, October 18, and to showcasing the power of sharing people’s stories.
“There are so many more of us speaking, and we are starting to stand together,” she says.
“COVID has meant we’ve had an opportunity to look at what Australia would look like without gambling and what people can do with their money other than throw it down a pokie machine.”
Stories with purpose
Earlier today, Carolyn Crawford clicked on a Zoom link and launched into telling the story of how she ended up in prison. Looking back, prison was probably a good outcome, she told her audience, from Ballarat Community Health.
Crawford, is a member of Three Sides of the Coin, and her storytelling is part of the group’s efforts to improve understanding in the health sector and wider community about the many harmful impacts of gambling.
At 69, Crawford finds it upsetting to tell her story, but worthwhile. “It gets the word out there. Nobody expects a lady of 64 to go to prison with gambling. I never even had a speeding ticket or a parking ticket before then.”
While in prison, Crawford underwent counselling and learnt how poker machines promote addiction. She met many other women who were in prison because of gambling.
She says: “I didn’t even realise I was addicted until I was talking to a counsellor in prison; they’re set up to addict you, the lights and the noise.”
She also began to understand how gambling was enmeshed with the threads of other traumas running through her life, from early loss of her mother to relationship breakdowns and loneliness.
Crawford also attended a talk by Carolyn Hirsch, a former Victorian MP, teacher and psychologist, and author of a book on gambling harms, Politics, Death and Addiction: A powerful story of a mother’s reaction to her daughter’s suicide.
Listening to Hirsch helped Crawford begin to develop a new understanding of what really happened when she first began playing the pokies 17 years ago, while working as an office manager. Initially it had just seemed like a bit of fun but her “downward spiral” began when she “borrowed” some money from her work to feed the machines.
Since her release, Crawford has devoted much of her time to working as a volunteer with the Alliance for Gambling Reform. Using her superannuation and an inheritance, she paid back the $400,000 she stole over seven years. This left her with no reserves, but feeling better about herself.
She hopes that her advocacy can stop others from ending up where she did.
“It shocks people to think somebody who has got grandkids, who ran an office for 13 years could get addicted to something like that,” she says. “I’m not proud of what I’ve done but I’m proud of what I’m doing.”
After Crawford’s presentation today, one of the participants commented in the Zoom chat that they were sad and angry that Crawford had to go to prison to get the help she needed. Another thanked her for making the issue of gambling harms “real”.
The #CroakeyGO is timely for a number of reasons, not least that a more favourable environment for policy reform is emerging in NSW.
The event also celebrates the growing voice of lived experience in the advocacy sector, according to Tom Cummings, who has been on the board of the Alliance for Gambling Reform for almost three years and has a long history as a reform advocate.
Five of the board’s nine members have lived experience of the harms of gambling, whether personally or through family members. This collective knowledge is helping to shape the organisation’s advocacy and policy work, says Cummings, and also serves to break down the stigma and the notion that “gambling is a problem other people have”.
“For someone like me, if you go back ten years, everyone was doing this on their own,” he says.
“Now we have people who have found each other. There’s a direction; it’s informed, it’s passionate, it’s based on experience. This isn’t a bunch of ivory tower academics, we’ve been there, we’ve lived it. As someone who has experienced gambling harm, I’m really pleased there is an organisation that has my interests at heart.”
Cummings says the Alliance takes a public health approach to its work, understanding gambling as a societal rather than individual issue, and aiming to prevent related harms, through striving to make the machines safer and addressing mental health issues.
He points to a Productivity Commission finding that for every person experiencing gambling harm directly, another 10 people are affected, and contrasts this with the industry’s framing of “problem gamblers”.
Kate Roberts, executive officer of the Gambling Impact Society (GIS) in NSW, also believes the tide may be shifting.
She points to NSW Minister Victor Dominello’s apparent commitment to action in the wake of public outcry caused by the 2018 suicide of Gary Van Duinen after a 13-hour session on the poker machines that finished at Dee Why RSL.
A Minister in a Liberal Government in NSW, which is the heartland of poker machine gambling, is saying ‘no, enough is enough’.
Maybe this is a tipping point.”
If so, she says this would indicate that politicians finally are catching up with the community, the majority of whom support gambling reform, despite the opposition of powerful organisations like Clubs NSW.
Roberts believes structural changes are necessary within governments so that gambling-related issues are also in the domain of health and social services, rather than being addressed primarily as an industry issue through gambling and racing portfolios.
Similarly, she would also like to see far greater involvement from the health sector in addressing gambling harms, from prevention and early intervention to clinical and policy domains.
“We have to stop this argument that just a small number of people are being affected by this product,” she says. “Large numbers of people are being affected, harmed by this product, which has the capacity to take $1,200 an hour off you.”
Just as cars, tobacco and other products have been modified in the interests of consumer safety, so must poker machines be changed to ensure safer use, Roberts argues. She wants the introduction of measures such as slowing down the speed at which money can be spent on the machines, reducing bets, and changing design features that encourage continued use.
This would help to reduce the incidence of harms including domestic violence, suicide, absent parents, poverty, housing loss and superannuation loss, she says.
All of these things have the potential to be made a lot safer.
What we need is the political will and an industry prepared to change their business model. We need to hold our politicians and regulators to account and get them to understand they are there for our community.
We know that 40 to 60 percent of that gambling income is from people being harmed. If 40 to 60 percent of people in your restaurant were becoming unwell, what would happen to the restaurant?”
Messages for services
Roberts, a social worker now undertaking a PhD on a public health approach to gambling, became involved in the issue back in the 90s when struggling to find support services for her partner’s addiction.
In the 20 years since founding the GIS, she has developed a lived experience peer education program with the aim of shifting community and professional understanding of the nature of gambling harms, with a focus on poker machines and online gambling.
Operating with patchy funding, the program has reached about 5,000 people over the last eight years, including community members, and front-line health and welfare services. “We pitch to frontline services who often don’t know anything about gambling,” she says.
Roberts says many health and social services do not appreciate the extent of gambling harms amongst the people they see because they don’t ask the right questions or create a safe environment for people to reveal their gambling histories.
“Services need to expect that a large proportion of people they are seeing are being impacted, whether by theirs or someone else’s gambling harms and to carefully elicit the information,” she says.
“For me as a family member, I want to walk into your waiting room and see something on your walls that tells me you are interested in my issue.”
Anna Bardsley agrees that health and social services could do much more to ask the right questions. “For me,” she says, “the question would have been, ‘what do you do in your spare time, what do you do to relax?’”
Bardsley says support groups and specialist services are also vital, citing Gambler’s Help as a useful service that remains an essential part of her recovery.
She also encourages the wider community and particularly the health sector to engage with advocacy efforts, contacting politicians and Ministers to raise their concerns about the industry and those adversely impacted by it.
For help and information
Gamblers Helpline 1800 858 858
Alliance for Gambling Reform Language Guide (Sept 2020)
Alliance website: https://www.pokiesplayyou.org.au/
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